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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Beau is Afraid (2023)

Updated: May 5, 2023

Beau is Afraid has been described a number of things by critics and audiences alike, but Writer/Director Ari Aster has described Beau is Afraid in probably two of the most accurate: “A Jewish Lord of the Rings”, as well as his most simple summary being: “a man who just needs to cum”. It is those things. A pent-up, sexually frustrated epic odyssey of guilt and shame that would make an overbearing parent shake their head in fervent disapproval.

Its plot is rather simple on paper. Like Lord of the Rings, a great quest across the country is what Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) has to endure. But instead of hurling a ring into Mount Doom, Beau is desperately trying to get to his mother. Without the help of a band of loveable elves, hobbits, dwarves, wizards and possibly giant eagles that could take him right to his destination, Beau has to undergo a harrowing and enlightening journey of introspection in order to finally reunite with his mother on an important anniversary - one that will test everything he knows about his relationship to not only her, but himself as well. It’s more than just a movie about a single white male with mommy issues, but one that taps into the deep, dark and scary psychological scarrings and reawakenings of our youth, our present and a future we have yet to encounter.

True to what seems like the age-old Jewish tradition of shame, guilt, anxiety and the paranoia that develops thanks to it, Beau is Afraid really does feel like a Jewish Lord of the Rings as Aster suggested. One that enriches the age-old cinema tradition of awkward, nervous, sweaty, Jewish filmmakers creating panic-attack-inducing works of self-deprecation with the veneer of dark humour thrown in for good measure (Charlie Kaufman, The Coen Bros, Albert Brooks,The Safdie Brothers, Emma Seligman, Darren Aronofsky, etc.). It’s a Kafka-esque foray into what may or may not be Ari Aster’s therapy session, a Charlie Kaufman-esque social anxiety horror that keeps its feet deep in its surreal waters before drowning in it.

It’s not a film for everyone. And I mean that. It’s overlong, bizarre, self-indulgent and consistently fucked up. It hurls you into its world early on, and thanks to my experience of the actual screening that unintentionally heightened the experience of experiencing Beau in a state of personal anxiety through my own irrational thoughts, much like Beau endures. Beau is extremely anxious. He’s paranoid about anything and everything around him, something we will eventually experience and learn through his long history of shame and guilt implanted into his psyche from an overbearing mother. Like Beau, I’m also anxious. Filled with irrational thoughts about the world around me and how it perceives me, or how I perceive IT to perceive me, so to speak.

My experience with this particular screening was an odd one. I was invited to it at the very last second, forcing me to travel across the city at 13h15 to get there by 14h00, with which the screening would promptly start on the dot. Thankfully, I got there with 5 minutes to spare, but parking was tricky. With no decent parking bays available, driving in someone else’s car and desperately needing to pee, I was forced to park next to a flimsy metal sheet that was separating us from a shit load of construction. Just managing to squeeze in, I rushed to go pee, and once I sat down, the intrusive thought of the car being destroyed by something at next door’s building site flooded my mind. I feared the worst: coming out to find the car flattened by a boulder or engulfed in flames. Can’t do that now, the movie is about to start. Soon enough, our peripheral is flooded with flashes of pink and white, muffled chaos ensues as we try to make out what is happening: It’s the POV of a child arriving into the world, expelled from the womb and enveloped by a blinding white light as we try to adjust to it, before being held upside down and slapped into life. BEAU IS AFRAID. The title card stares at us as a child cries and just outside our theatre, construction is booming: Screaming, yelling, laughter at inside jokes (or possibly at the expense of the aforementioned borrowed car now engulfed in flames) is at full volume. An orchestra of out-of-time banging and clanging of metal and brick objects is in full effect. A moth also made its way into the projection booth, constantly flying past the light or resting on the actual lens, leaving a shadow on the screen every now and then. Normally this would infuriate me, but this constant buzz of environmental feedback added a layer to the already chaotic scenes playing out in front of us, unintentionally heightening the experience of experiencing Beau is Afraid. It was a stroke of genius not from the director, but from fate itself that allowed me to sink deeper into Beau’s irrational, paranoid worldview.

There’s a common “it’s so hot right now” theme amongst most horror these days, especially among the artier horrors under the A24’s and NEON’s of the world. Those themes are guilt, trauma and loss. Both of Aster’s previous full-length outputs dealt heavily with trauma and loss in particular with both Hereditary(2018) and Midsommar (2019). Loss and guilt are prevalent throughout his latest, but it’s with the specific nuances of shame that plays a major part in the whole construct that is Beau is Afraid. Anxiety is also a major theme, or let’s rather say, mood that is found in every work Aster has done. It’s a feeling that drives or halts characters' progressions until they are finally forced to break right through it in order to arrive at their spiritual or physical deaths. But here, it feels like Aster’s work has reached its most anxious. And like the description of a Jewish Lord of the Rings, the anxiety of venturing outwards, far away from the world you have locked yourself away in, is a terrifying thought not just for Beau, but myself as well.

Like Beau, so many of our hang-ups, so much of the trauma we hold onto can be attributed to what we experienced in our early years: a compilation album of traumatic events both small and large can effectively shape our outlook on life well into our adult years, and with Beau’s case, has completely shaped and imprisoned his life in an echo chamber of the aforementioned guilt, shame and crippling fear of the world waiting to either eat us up or embrace us for who we are. In Beau’s case, it’s a multitude of things that have kept him trapped under his mother’s thumb. Through a series of flashbacks (a young Beau played by Armen Nahapetian who reassures us he is not CGI or AI), memories and dreams, we see the overwhelming damage she has done on him emotionally, mentally and in some cases physically. One of Ari Aster’s briefest and most accurate descriptions of Beau’s entire odyssey, is that he’s just “a man who needs to cum”. In an early flashback scene, Beau’s mother explains to him, as a child, that his father died while finishing inside her, the moment with which Beau was conceived. Now in his 50’s, Beau is yet to cum. It’s a tragically hysterical memory that has helped shape this man, something that may or may not be intended to keep him as a pure child forever in the eyes of his mother. In one of my own traumatic entry points in my life, I was raised in a conservative church. Questions of sexuality or sexual activities were often met with vague explanations. One instance in particular that shaped a large portion of my teenage years was that masturbation was considered an act of great physical and spiritual sin. Every time I would partake in the urges to offset my raging hormones and general horniness of being a teenage boy, I’d punish myself - cutting my inner thigh every time I felt the shame of doing what Beau can’t do in fear of death. Thankfully, I’ve never had mommy issues (or at least I hope not), but it’s with this collage of long-gestating trauma and shame that allows Beau is Afraid to be so emotionally resonant with viewers who do choose to connect with it, with their own unfavourable memories effectively shaping how they eventually ventured out into the world.

The paranoia within Beau is very real. His anxiety further amplifies his perspective, and because we are experiencing everything through this skewed viewpoint, Ari Aster is able to create a surreal hellscape that is both hilarious and terrifying, tapping into Charlie Kaufman territories as irrational fears plague Beau at every turn. In the film’s first section, he lives in a terrifying neighbourhood in the city, one that is constantly blaring with violence and fear. Is there really a murderous horde of men waiting to catch him the moment he steps into their field of view? Is there really an over-eager man running after him, pestering and begging him for help? Will these monsters destroy his entire world once they sniff a chance to do so? Probably not. But because Beau is convinced of this, we see it happening all the time; and true to real life, we can, at times, feel those things, unable to escape that niggling feeling. While viewing Beau, I was still having those irrational thoughts of the chaos brewing outside by the car, with the added noise of construction and yelling unintentionally adding to this section of the film so effectively. It may be on the nose, especially in early portions of the film, but Aster creates a resounding atmosphere and feel of what it’s like to think that the world is out to get you. In my own life, I constantly assume that every person I meet, or even ones I just walk past, hate every fiber of my being, and while Beau feels a multitude of these thoughts in varying extremities, I connected with that feeling of utter and complete disdain of oneself as you feel the world is judging you for the pathetic piece of shit you think you are.

Thankfully, as the film develops, the carnage slows down a touch, and although it doesn’t go away entirely, Aster is able to switch the mood up from being an abrasive, confrontational, social anxiety horror, to fully embracing the more introspective surreal notes he has in store for us the deeper we delve into Beau’s psychological state - with a major highlight of the film that features Beau entering a play, hypothesizing the life he could’ve had if he strayed off the path of fear and pursued the life he could’ve had outside the confines of his mother’s control. Shame and guilt, as mentioned before, are big players in the thematic, allegorical and metaphorical conversations Ari Aster has with his characters and himself. Now, I’m not saying Ari Aster IS Beau Wassermann or any of his other protagonists, but we often find that whether it’s opposing arguments from external and internal forces, are often extensions of the author/artist themselves. They have something to say and observe and this is their way of doing it. Here, although Beau is tonally different to that of Midsommar and Hereditary in that it’s more of a comedy than straight-up horror/psychological horror (although it features those elements heavily), Aster revisits the same themes so prevalent for his protagonists: guilt, trauma and shame. They’re often characters recovering from a great personal trauma that allows for the shame and guilt to thrive, how they’re either not good enough or they think it’s their fault that these things are happening through internal or external forces. Beau is going through that again, but thanks to the surreal nature of Beau is Afraid (and its three-hour running time), Aster is able to tap deeper into the psyche of his character, ranging from bizarre encounters with the madcap characters he meets along the way, or a spectacular and heartbreaking part-animated sequence of what if’s and wish fulfillment. And it’s the shame that overshadows the guilt that Beau feels throughout: Am I a good son? Am I a terrible son? Is it my mom’s fault? Or is it mine? And like Christian towards Dani in Midsommar, gaslighting comes from all angles at Beau, whether it be from his mother, a terrible teenager at a house he stays at or even himself, once again drawing unfortunate,e significant parallels to my own lived-in experience of shame and guilt I bring on myself: Am I bad son? Am I bad brother? A Bad partner? And of course, like Beau, significant past experiences only pour fuel on the self-deprecating fire he is convinced of being true.

Aster also repeats visual motifs throughout his films and with Beau, he makes use of the same things: From attics or dark rooms harbouring horrifying secrets (and I do mean horrifying), match cuts, brutal deaths via head injury, and the inevitable death rattle that follows and surrounds his protagonists - furthering the shame, guilt and trauma they are already trying to fight through. Aster is also no stranger to showing and talking about the influences that inspired this work, something that he has stated is the most him of any of his movies, one that has him returning to the dark humour more prevalent in his short films than his feature lengths. Charlie Kaufman, although not mentioned in his influences (at least that I haven't found yet), feels like the most obvious shadow looming over Beau is Afraid’s overall demeanor, but Jaques Tati and particularly his masterwork Playtime (1967), a sprawling visual comedic showcase, is a major influence on Beau’s aesthetic and blocking. In Playtime, there’s always something happening in every part of the frame, from the foreground, to the middle ground to the background. There’s always something different to look at and it’s what makes Playtime such an enriching experience because every character on screen does so much with the smallest of gestures and the simplest of tasks. We may not go in for a closer look, but they exist. With Beau, Aster utilizes his space in a similar manner, allowing for an often-times overload of visual moving pieces with something or someone always moving about. Surprisingly, Albert Brooks’ existential comedy about the afterlife in Defending Your Life (1991) appears to be another major thematic influence as Beau encounters his fears head-on in order to escape his own life. Then, with the animated section found within Beau, we have Chilean filmmakers Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León, the masterminds behind the surrealist, experimental, animated stop-motion horror The Wolf House (2018) taking the reins; delivering a gorgeous fantasy pushing us deeper into the hopes, dreams, desires and fears of Beau and his unconscious need to take his life into his own hands and step out of his mother’s suffocating shadow.

But it’s with Beau’s ensemble that also allows for it to work tonally as well. Joaquin Phoenix, who is easily one of the top names working right now, grabs hold of his character and latches on, refusing to let go just the same way Beau is unable to unhook his mother from him and him from his mother as he embraces the shame with which Beau is constantly holding in his shoulders: a spineless, whisper of a man that only Phoenix could deliver with such compelling intensity. His surrounding cast members add specific flavours to an already overloaded broth, with Nathan Lane (“You need to rest mah brutha”), Patti LuPone (as his mother) and Amy Ryan being particular standouts in an already outstanding supporting cast.

Beau is Afraid isn’t for everyone, that’s for damn sure. Is it just three hours of therapy at Ari Aster’s expense as one critic suggests? Maybe. But I’m ok with that as it worked as a sort of therapy for myself as well (don’t worry, they’re not as extreme as Beau, here). It’s a work that is most certainly self-indulgent. A work that is definitely too long. And it’s a fine example (along with Chazelle’s Babylon last year which I did love) of a studio possibly giving too much power to their young, hot-shit auter in question. But it’s a spectacular, ambitious piece of introspective filmmaking guaranteed to stir up a conversation. It’s equally brilliant and maddening. After my screening, myself and two other critics remained behind. For thirty minutes, we sat in complete darkness talking about the film. What we loved, what we hated and what it meant to us. It’s moments like this that make me love movies like Beau is Afraid, ones that, regardless if you loved it or not, create discussion. Polarity is often the signs of good, effective art, and with Beau is Afraid, Aster has effectively created one such work that will be discussed and re-evaluated by both haters and lovers for years to come.

Where you can watch it: In theatres (USA), In theatres (SA, 5 May), In Theatres (UK, 19 May)

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